Playing God in the Movies: The Preposterous History of Genesis 1:26-27
Several recent movies seem to put the difficult passage, Gen 1:26-27, in a different light by suggesting, at least from my reader's perspective, that humankind's creation in "God's image and likeness" implies a correspondence in power between God and humans rather than a similarity in nature and/or mind. Whether one finds such a bold claim appropriate or not, it is by no means new, since Mary Shelley already made this suggestion in her Frankenstein of 1818.
One of the movies that suggests a reading of Gen 1:26-27 in which humans take over God's powers and role is Playing God. The central character in this 1997 film by Andy Wilson is Eugene Sands (David Duchovny), a Los Angeles surgeon who lost his license because of a drug problem. In a bar where Sands goes to get high, he temporarily saves the life of a criminal by quickly fabricating a breathing apparatus from a Coke bottle. Because of this miraculous saving act, Sands is hired by an important criminal and enters a new, illegal, and dirty medical career in the underworld. The "playing God" motif in this movie is basically restricted to Sands's performance as a doctor. The movie plays with the idea that a doctor has God's powers by his or her capability to heal, having the power not only to give but also to take life. It invokes associations of doctors with God as well as with Jesus.
Several other recent movies take up the "playing God" motif much more elaborately, especially the comedy Bruce Almighty. Its plot is determined by the take-over of God's role by a human, the local TV reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey). Bruce's not very successful performance as God is the crux of a spiritual journey, during which he learns how to become a responsible human being. The "playing God" theme is dominant in most of Bruce Almighty's scenes. In fact, the movie can be seen as a fresh look into the huge interpretive problems of Gen 1:26-27, such as the implied plurality of God, the view of humans as God's image, the mysterious processes of creation, as well as the power relationships between God, humans, and animals. Bruce Almighty includes several explicit references, both oral and visual, to Gen 1, which makes it a promising source not only for the "playing God" motif in recent movies, but also for the interconnections between Gen 1:26-27 and contemporary film. Following Mieke Bal, we could even engage in Bruce Almighty's preposterous history by asking what the movie does to our reading of the biblical text of Gen 1:26-27.
The "playing God" motif is taken literally in Bruce Almighty because the Buffalo TV reporter Bruce Nolan actually takes over God's job for a considerable time. God gives the egocentric Bruce this opportunity in response to cynical provocations. It takes a while before Bruce realizes the dimensions of the job, and God (Morgan Freeman) actually guides him in several meetings to make him realize what he can and cannot do. The audience understands this more quickly than Bruce does, which enhances the viewers' expectations to see how Bruce will handle each situation. God explains the rules to Bruce in a second meeting, after he has played around with his unbelievable powers for a while: 1) he should not tell anyone that he is God, and 2) he cannot go beyond human free will. Bruce violates the first rule many times by making allusions to his divine status, and he realizes the consequences of the second rule, but only slowly, in his disastrous relationship with his girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston).
Many references to Gen 1 help to elaborate the "playing God" motif in Bruce Almighty. In the sequence about the job offer at Bruce's first meeting with God in the "omni presents" warehouse, there is a cluster of references to Genesis 1. The number seven is highlighted several times, in numbers on signs on the wall and in a little dialogue when Bruce tries to trap God by asking him how many fingers he holds up behind his back. God responds by giving Bruce seven fingers on one hand for a moment. This scene also alludes to God's acts of creation in illustrative shots, offering a fascinating perspective on God's way of creating humankind, which remains so much a mystery in Gen 1:26-27. As is well known, the creation story in Genesis 1 points to two steps of creation, a statement that expresses God's will (e.g., v. 26: "God said: let us make...") is followed by an act of creation (e.g., v. 27: "God created ..."), but there is no specific information in Gen 1 about how God's acts of creation took place. During the meeting with Bruce, God's creation of light (Gen 1:3), which is repeated in several ways later on, presents God as standing halfway through a hole in the ceiling of the empty warehouse. God creates a special light like an electrician. Later on, Bruce performs similar acts by creating or manipulating light, creating darkness as well.
The connection of these creative acts with Gen 1 is underpinned by a hint in a brief conversation between Bruce and his boss after Bruce's overwhelming comeback, with the help of God's powers, of course. When Bruce explains that he needed some time to reassess his goals, the boss replies: "You did that in a day?" Bruce: "Imagine what I can do in seven when I get in touch with my true self." Another link is the quote from Gen 1:3 ("let there be light") in a scene at the party that Bruce's boss throws for him. The movie makes the divine acts of creation visible and depicts them in the terms of a human world with electricity, but as in Gen 1 the mystery of the acts remains nevertheless. There is also a clear allusion to Gen 1:28 in the party scene, when Bruce says in triumph to his admirers: "Bless you, bless all of you, be fruitful and do long the vision or something (?)." And finally, the movie can also be linked to the creation of humankind according to Gen 1-2 in one of the final scenes, when Bruce is revived by God after his deadly accident. With a statement of God about Bruce's creation, this scene suggests that God personally creates every individual human being in line with a well-established Jewish as well as Christian interpretation of Gen 1 and 2 (see already 2 Macc 7:22-23).
How can Bruce Almighty affect our reading of Gen 1? The movie, of course, visualizes God's or Bruce's creative acts and the use of their divine powers. God and/or Bruce create or change things, in line with Gen 1, by talking. In the scene after Bruce's meeting with God in the warehouse, he still doesn't really believe that he has divine powers and starts his car by talking. More frequently, God and Bruce use their hands to arrange things—highlighted by God's clapping of his hands to create light, "clap on, clap on"—or their will and imagination, with or without hands. One example concerns my favorite scene, the Parting of the Red Soup, which in several ways echoes Exod 14 as well as Cecil B. DeMille's presentation of the Red Sea episode in The Ten Commandments. The explanation of God's acts of creation by the use of a divine hand (cf. Exod 14:21) has famous forerunners. Rashi's comments on Gen 1:27 and Michelangelo's fresco of Adam's creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel both refer to God's hand in connection to the creation of humankind/Adam, and perhaps associate creation in this way with Ps 139:5 "You ... lay your hand upon me."
God and Bruce's miraculous deeds of creation echo other biblical miracles as well, like the plague of locusts of Exod 10:1-20 (Bruce sends a swarm of insects after his molesters as a parting gift) and Jesus' walking on water. Bruce uses his divine powers to create news, mostly disasters like the impact of a meteor, although he has the power to end history in five minutes. He manipulates nature as well as human bodies (molester with monkey, Grace's breasts, voice of Evan Baxter), but every time out of self-interest. Some of these scenes can be interpreted as mild criticism of the misuse of pet animals and plastic surgery. Importantly, Bruce's manipulations consistently match the superiority of humans over animals that is implied by many interpreters of Gen 1:26-28. So, Bruce Almighty ignores the countertrend among environmentalists, animal activists, and even some theologians.
Being God is a learning process for Bruce. He learns that his criticism of God is unjustified because the answer to the question "Can Bruce (can humans) do it better than God?" in the scene with the job offer is clearly "No." During Bruce's fourth meeting with God, he asks in despair whether Grace will take him back. He wants to arrange the impossible, making Grace love him without affecting her free will. God answers: "Welcome to my world, son; if you come up with an answer to that one, you let me know." This is the first moment that Bruce realizes the limits to his powers. Every act of his has a consequence, but he cannot manipulate people's free will and he cannot fulfill all humans' wishes—doing that would cause unheard-of disasters. Seeing Grace praying after she has left him finishes Bruce off, and he walks in the rain to Grace, making a statement that recalls the despair of Job and of the suffering righteous in the Psalms: "You win, I am done, I don't want to be God, I want you to decide what is right for me." The moment he says, "I surrender to your will," there is a divine light and a truck runs over him. Submitting finally to God's will is, nevertheless, the turning point in Bruce's life. At his worst moment he learns his personal lesson to see the signs, to submit to God's will, to repent, and to become a better person.
In fact, the movie presents a coherent and clearly optimistic message by suggesting that people should act according to justice, mercy, love, and offer concrete help: helping people, hearing their prayers, "be the miracle" yourself, "you have the power." By doing this, it suggests an inversion of Gen 1:26: human powers can achieve a divine dimension through good and responsible human acts. The symbolism of God as janitor (warehouse scenes and later on) conveys a similar message: "whatever mess you create, you clean up." Praying does help, and giving blood saves people's lives. There is a significant inclusio of opening and final scenes here. Bruce's own development shows this message well: his egocentrism and anger finally turn into forgiveness, help, and attention to calls for help. Bruce's lesson is a lesson for all humans, of course, because God cannot fulfill his job without the cooperation of humans. God's powers are limited by free will: this is the crux for Bruce's relationship with Grace, but it is also true in general. Being "resurrected," Bruce gets a second chance and learns to exploit his free will in a responsible way, which also helps to restore his relationship with Grace.
The movie constructs a dualistic world. In accordance with traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim views, there are two simultaneous levels in the cosmos. Human life on earth and God's creating, observing, and controlling activities in the heavenly world go hand in hand, as many signs in the movie, God's appearances, and God's file cabinet in the warehouse show. But God interferes only incidentally, by signs or singular actions, which largely remain in the dark (restoring order after Bruce's failure, bringing Bruce to life again), suggesting that humans basically do God's job. On the other hand, prayer is highlighted in many scenes in the movie, anticipated by Grace's gift of prayer beads to Bruce when they drive to work at the beginning. Bruce is very skeptical whether the beads will help, not to say that they can save his life. The function of the beads as a tool to direct one's prayers to God is clear, but they do not trigger associations with a specific religion. Finally, the file cabinets, post-its, and Bruce's computer program to deal with the millions of incoming prayers highlight prayer. The program is called "Yahweh! Insta-Prayer" and notifies him of incoming mail with the message "You've got prayers," a clear allusion to You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
Once again, what may result from a combined reading of Gen 1:26-27 and Bruce Almighty? Which interpretative avenues for reading the biblical passage are suggested by the movie, and how do they relate to vistas opened by other movies with the "playing God" theme? Bruce Almighty visualizes God as a human. God looks completely human at first sight, as a kind African American elderly man in a most perfect white suit or blue overall. But there is more to it. Slowly the audience notices that God's actions encompass more than it sees and more than Bruce can handle. God is able to appear and disappear everywhere, as Bruce is in his divine role. Significantly, God's plurality, a notorious problem in the interpretation of Gen 1:26 ("let us make humankind"), is elaborated in two ways. On the one hand, the movie hints at the traditional Christian interpretation that the plural in Gen 1:26 refers to the Trinity. In the job offer scene, God is a janitor, electrician, and boss at the same time, as Bruce acknowledges. The association of these three roles of God with the Son, Holy Spirit, and God can hardly be missed. On the other hand, Bruce's role of playing God suggests that there is only one God because Bruce has all of God's powers, which calls for other explanations of the plural. Bruce's learning process suggests that there is another dimension to God's plurality because God cannot do without humans for the fulfillment of the divine plan. Here the function of humans as God's image is relevant. God's powers are limited because humans are created with free will. The movie emphasizes, therefore, the role humans have in the realization of God's intention for the world.
Interestingly, this preposterous history of Gen 1:26-27, as suggested by Bruce Almighty, fits in with Jewish and Christian interpretations of the passage in scholarly literature. Abraham J. Heschel argues that the crux of Gen 1:26-27, about humans as God's image, is that it forms an outline for human deeds. He develops this line of thought by linking Gen 1 to the key biblical concept of holiness as defined in Lev 19:2 ("You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy") and biblical statements about God's being full of righteousness and mercy. The fact that humans have been created in God's image and likeness implies that they should aim for what they have in common with God: holiness. Humans have a commission to act as God's partners.
Another example is Louise Schottroff's passionate interpretation of Gen 1, which focuses on God's intentions as well as men and women's partnership with God. God has created a distinct, good, and reliable order, which humans should guard by justice and love, and not by domination, oppression, and exploitation, as Western industrial society did and still does. Schottroff is not interested in what "in God's image" originally may have meant but in its meaning for current readers. She draws on passages from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and rabbinic literature alike to make her point: living as images of God implies a lifestyle determined by justice and love.
Being God's image by doing just and merciful deeds is what the movie calls, with an optimistic incitement, "be the miracle" and "you have the power..." This sounds very simple, but implies, with an eye on Gen 1:26-27, a most radical reading of the biblical passage: by doing the right deeds and exploiting their unique talents humans can become divine. And this is what God explains to Bruce after the accident, that he has a divine spark—namely, his gift to make people laugh.
Furthermore, God's way of creation, partly exemplified by Bruce's use of his divine powers, fills the lacuna in Gen 1:26-27 about the creation process with several suggestions. God and Bruce create by talking, using their hands, will, and imagination. Yet, there remains a hidden dimension to God's powers, and we learn through Bruce that humans should submit to that. Finally, the hierarchy between God, humans, and animals is not very important in Bruce Almighty. The perspective of God's task is pretty much presented as part of an individualistic and human-centered worldview, which is the dominant view in the Western world. The movie does not pay much attention to either the well-being of animals or the natural environment.
Indeed, Bruce's manipulation of his dog Sam, who manages to use the bathroom as a human, and the monkey that comes out of the molester's butt seems to be a pretty harmless joke compared to the morbid perspective of eXistenZ and Hollowman, two other movies with the "playing God" motif, each differing strongly from the middle-of-the-road views in Bruce Almighty. God is absent, for example, in these movies, and humans do take over God's role, but their relationship to animals is very different.
David Cronenberg's 1999 science fiction movie eXistenZ is about computer games played on organic game pods linked to the human body through a bio port in the spine. The movie constructs an analogy between eXistenZ's designer Allegra Geller and God. Geller gives the players their game, like God gave life to humankind. Geller's introduction as game designer underpins the analogy with God by twice calling her a goddess, which is repeated in the scene at the Country Gas Station. A brief dialogue between Pikul, Geller's bodyguard, and Gas, the man at the Country Gas Station, elaborates Geller's divine role, suggesting that her computer game is the medium to become God: "Have you ever played ArtGod, capital A capital G? Thou, the player of the game, art God, very spiritual, very funny too." Gas's role as provider of Pikul's bio port triggers additional associations with God and creation: "God the artist, the mechanic, very funny," and "God the mechanic, step into my office," interjected by Pikul's "Oh God." The moment Pikul has his bio port, these associations turn around completely because Gas falls for the money set on Allegra's head and tries to kill her. eXistenZ turns into an ongoing series of deadly combats between the players. The game pods feed themselves on the players' human body, and the game characters take over the players' personality. Several scenes deal with the selection and dissection of the mutated amphibians used for the production of the game pods, which can easily be connected with ongoing discussions about bio-medical experiments, cloning, genetic manipulation, and mixing human and animal organic materials. In this perspective, the movie not only offers a fresh view of the hierarchy between God, humans, and animals according to Gen 1, but also turns into a prophecy of doom concerning human manipulation of nonhuman organic materials.
Like Playing God, Bruce Almighty, and eXistenZ, Paul Verhoeven's Hollowman (2000) imagines what could happen when humans take over God's powers, but this movie focuses entirely on the dangers resulting from humans playing God. The "playing God" motif concerns a case of bio-medical research that gets out of hand. The movie is a science fiction thriller in which a genius scientist turns against his fellow-researchers in an underground laboratory while working on the invisibility of mammals. By becoming invisible himself in one of the experiments, Dr. Caine, the leader of the research team, turns into a monster, misusing for his own interests the enormous freedom that his invisibility gives him. It is hard to construct an interpretive bridge between Hollowman and God's creation of humankind in Gen 1:26-27. The echoes of Gen 1 remain quite vague, and the "playing God" motif is hardly elaborated. In one of his own comments on the film, Paul Verhoeven connects the invisibility motif with a passage from Plato, suggesting that becoming invisible makes you feel like God. As a matter of fact, Dr. Caine's role as a monster triggers associations with a text other than Gen 1, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which has been re-created visually many times. After his self-orchestrated transformation, Dr. Caine desperately tries to revive his relationship with Dr. Linda McKay, like Frankenstein's monster, who in some of its visual re-creations is looking for a partner. Ironically, it is Dr. McKay who gives the monstrous Caine his well-deserved punishment. Nevertheless, both eXistenZ and Hollowman are important reference materials for Bruce Almighty because they show, each in its own way, how the "playing God" motif can be elaborated negatively, dramatically exposing the dark side of humans who think they are God.
Jan Willem van Henten, J.W.vanHenten@uva.nl, Department of Art, Religion and Culture, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Netherlands
Bal, Mieke. Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Heschel, Abraham J. "What is Man?" Pages 233-41 in Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel. Edited by F. A. Rothschild. New York: Free Press, 1997.
_____. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Meridian; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959 (289-92, 411-13).
Schottroff, Louise. "The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1.1-2.4a." Pages 24-38 in A Feminist Companion to Genesis. Edited by A. Brenner. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
Citation: Jan Willem van Henten, " Playing God in the Movies: The Preposterous History of Genesis 1:26-27," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=364